When a Tri-Wizard Fails, Try Spiders Instead
Summary: Taylor learns the hard way that travel broadens the mind – even the bits of your brain that you didn't know you had.
WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI.
Upon a rooftop limned with gouts of flame, two figures did battle.
If there had been a spectator present who wanted to get caught up in technicalities, and who was blessed with both excellent enumerating skills and keen eyesight, they might have pointed out that there was, in fact, seven-hundred-and-twelve thousand, four hundred and eighty-three figures participating in this fight. A more pragmatic bystander might then have pointed out that, out of this impressive number of combatants, only two were worth mentioning in any great detail, since those two aggressors were the only ones who A) had actual names that could - depending on the battle's outcome - be put in a police report, a news article, or an obituary; and B) were too large to be buried in a matchbox, should the aforementioned hypothetical obituary become a grim reality.
In other words: A teenage girl, armed with little more than a swarm of bugs, was fighting a fiery rage monster. Even though she was, technically, the undisputed leader of an army that outnumbered the opposition by a factor of several-hundred-thousand-to-one, the odds of her emerging victorious from this mess seemed far less favourable.
The mask she wore made it impossible to tell what her expression might have looked like, but her body language spoke - in the loudest and clearest possible terms - of utter desperation.
She was scrambling to find a way to escape. Her opponent was advancing quickly, growing more vast and bestial by the second. She was effectively surrounded, with the furious monster in front of her, a sheer drop of far too many stories before hitting pavement behind her, and blazing fires all around. It was an impossible situation.
And then, two more figures appeared, dressed in strange robes and riding broomsticks that somehow kept them aloft in mid-air. From that point on, everything got worse.
"Look!" One of the newcomers cried out with a pleased smile, adjusting his pointy hat. "We found one already! And what a specimen! We might be getting a bonus, for this one!"
The other broom-rider scratched his moustache. "Are you sure, Jephro? This doesn't look like Västerås... And that thing sure ain't no Swedish Short-Snout."
"So what, mate?" The man in the hat reached into his wide sleeve, and pulled out a polished stick. "One dragon is as good as another, when they're just gonna be putting it in front of a crowd of gawking school kids, so's everybody can go 'ooh' and 'aah'... In fact, it'll be better to have a proper fierce one!"
While the two newcomers bickered, the life-or-death battle had temporarily halted. The two combatants - Taylor Hebert, the bug girl, and the rage monster Lung - stared at the two ridiculously dressed strangers and their flying broomsticks.
"Erm..." Hebert cleared her throat, glancing up at her inhuman opponent, towering over her. "Are they, um... w-working for you?"
Lung narrowed his burning eyes, plumes of smoke spiraling from flared nostrils. Slowly, he shook his head. "Nruhh," he grunted. "Yurss?"
Hebert shook her head. "N-no. Never seen 'em before in my life."
"Hrn." Lung nodded. "Luss feng yoo see."
"Remarkable!" Jephro the Hat-Man exclaimed. "That almost sounded like normal, English speech!"
Mr. Moustache nodded. "It sounded like... 'loafing yew tree'?"
Hebert backed away from the huge rage beast. "Erm... I think he said: 'Last thing you see'."
Both of the flying newcomers were now pointing sticks at Lung. They cried out something that might have begun with: "Dracocorpus", or it might have been: "Drag octopus". It was hard to tell, in the sudden burst of noise.
Lung let out a deafening roar and leapt towards the two broom-riders, evidently intent on killing the people who could fly, first. Flame billowed around him like a cloak of fury made manifest.
Beams of blue light erupted from the broom-riders' two sticks, striking Lung in the face and shoulder. The monstrous parahuman staggered briefly, halted in his tracks. He snarled, and swelled another three inches in height.
Jephro swore under his breath, and fired another azure energy bolt at Lung, to equally little effect. "She's a stubborn one, alright! The Dragon-Restraining Curses barely gave her pause!"
"Well, try something else, then!" Mr. Moustache shouted. "Stupefy!"
A missile of crackling red power shot from the moustachioed man's stick, splashing against Lung's digitigrade leg.
Hebert had taken the opportunity to scurry away from the thick of the action, retreating to another corner of the rooftop.
Lung batted at the two flying nuisances, lunging up in powerful leaps and bounds that shook the building and left footprints in the concrete rooftop, every time he landed again. Short, stubby wings flapped furiously from his shoulder blades, trying and failing to keep him aloft, but growing incrementally larger with every beat.
Jephro and Moustache flitted about like oversized dragonflies, their brooms seemingly manoeuvrable enough to allow them to dodge Lung's attacks. Whenever the huge dragon-man was about to clip one of them with a clawed limb or a column of fire, the broom-rider would project a shimmering force-field from his stick, or his partner would distract the monster with another brightly coloured blast. Sometimes, when Lung unleashed an exceptionally large torrent of flame, the broom-riders waved their sticks in a certain pattern, and the fire promptly froze in mid-air, stock still and harmless.
"Don't be daft, Cyril!" Jephro shouted over the noise of Lung's bellows. "Regular Stunners won't work on a dragon! Their hide is too thick, and resistant to magic!"
Mr. Moustache - Cyril - fired yet another crimson bolt at Lung. This time, it struck the raging monster in his open maw.
Lung took a slow, juddering step... Then, one more.
Finally, the tremendous rage beast sank to his knees, and collapsed in a heap of muscle and scales.
Cyril lit up in a broad smirk, causing his slightly singed moustache to crinkle. "Looks like it works just fine, if you hit her in the gob."
Hebert crept closer, watching the unconscious monster warily. Lung was no longer emitting flames from his body, but the fires he'd ignited around the rooftop still burned.
She turned to the two broom-riders, who had landed on the roof and begun waving their sticks in a very deliberate manner over the stunned parahuman. "Uh... Are you with the Protectorate? Are you going to arrest him?"
"Pardon? 'Him'?" Jephro chuckled, and shook his head. "It's obvious that you're not a dragon-handler, luv!" He pointed at the base of Lung's tail, or possibly a short distance above it. "If that's a male dragon, it's the first bull I've seen that was completely knob-less!"
"Erm... W-well..." Hebert mumbled, hunching her shoulders. "...I tried to slow him down, by having my bugs attack his... y'know."
Cyril rolled his eyes. "Oh, really, now? Trying to take down a dragon with conjured bugs? What are they teaching kids in Care of Magical Creatures, these days?"
"Must have skipped a few of the basics," Jephro sniggered. "You're delusional, girl! Even if you could have gotten past 'his' scales," he said, doing exaggerated air-quotes with one hand. "A few bee stings would only make the tissue swell up! You would have made 'his' John Thomas even more noticeable, not made it disappear into thin air!"
Hebert muttered something under her breath - words and phrases that sounded like: "necrotizing toxins", and "urethral tract", and "might have gotten a little carried away".
The stick-waving stopped. The two strangers had traced the outline of a large cubic shape in the air, adding several more vertical swipes and a few horizontal flourishes with their sticks. Seconds after they'd finished, a large metal cage sprouted from the rooftop, thick bars trapping Lung inside.
"There we go," said Cyril with a satisfied nod. "All wrapped up, and ready for transport."
Jephro grinned. "I'm telling you, this girl is gonna knock their socks off, when one of the champions goes up against her! It'll be ace - a perfect start for the new Tri-Wizard Tournament!"
"Champions? Wizard?" Hebert rubbed one of her upper arms, then stopped herself, trying to stand straight. "Hang on... Are you guys some sort of... British Myrddin-wannabes, or something?"
"Merlin?" Jephro buffed his nails on his robes. "We-e-ell, I don't think we'll get an Order of Merlin for this little windfall, but... With a prize dragon like this in the bag, the Ministry'd pretty much have to reward us, eh?"
"British? Of course we're British, what else?" Cyril frowned. "Wait... That accent... Are you a Colonial?"
Hebert stood in silence for a few seconds. "...Um, we're in the United States, if that's what you mean? Y'know, America?"
Cyril rummaged around in his robes, and fished out a coat hanger that looked too big to fit inside the pocket where he'd found it. He shook it a few times, glaring at it. "Damn defective Portkey! This is your fault, Jephro! I told you we should have paid Breemers to charm us a fresh batch, instead of using the old leftover ones you had lying around!"
Jephro pinched the bridge of his nose. "America... Well, that explains the low standards of education, I suppose." He plastered a smile on his face, and turned back to face Hebert. Some people might have found it charming, although most of those individuals were probably blind, or at least near-sighted. "Tell you what... If you happen to visit Britain in the next few months, you should drop by Hogwarts. Might pick up a bit of learning, just from being near such a famous school, right? Here, you can even have this ticket for the Tournament! You'd get to see all sorts of impressive magic, there!"
He brandished a small slip of paper - no, parchment - and held it out towards Hebert. The masked girl stalled for another long moment, before she reached for the offered ticket.
A fifth figure appeared, bearing a mask with the visage of a scowling demon. He plucked the ticket from Jephro's grasp, and seized the man's outstretched fingers with his other hand, a crude handshake.
As suddenly as he had appeared, the fifth figure crumbled into ash, vanishing into nothing.
Jephro blinked, nonplussed, but raised his stick in front of himself, seemingly on instinct. A sparkling force-field bloomed from the tip of his stick. Frowning, he glanced down at his other hand - the one that the figure in the demon mask had grabbed and squeezed.
A roughly fist-sized object, close to ovoid in shape, rested in his palm.
Hebert scrambled backwards, and dove for cover behind a large air conditioning unit that still smouldered from Lung's flames. "Grenade!"
"Huh?" Jephro frowned. "Wha-?"
The grenade exploded.
The two men carrying sticks had both shielded themselves with their force-fields, but were still sent tumbling back by the blast, pin-wheeling like rag dolls across the roof.
Hebert crouched behind her impromptu cover, arms over her head and covering her ears.
Lung stirred in his cage, and huffed out a drowsy snort.
Jephro groaned, and struggled to get upright. He froze, eyes wide, once he saw what had happened to his unshielded hand, when the grenade went off. "...Fecking 'ell!"
By the time Hebert had gotten back on her feet and stuck her head out from behind cover, the battle had been re-joined. The demon-masked teleporter, Oni Lee, was popping around the rooftop, often appearing in mid-air, as he chased the two broom-riders, slashing at them with knives. Or, rather, one broom-rider and one passenger - Cyril was on his broom again, with Jephro hanging on behind him as best he could with only one-and-a-half arms to work with. There were several thick leather belts, dyed lemon yellow and a rather eye-searing shade of lavender, wrapped tightly around the stump of Jephro's damaged arm; despite the crude and haphazard arrangement of these tourniquets, his injuries seemed to have stopped bleeding.
Cyril and Jephro were both shouting strange words in pseudo-Latin, pointing their sticks at Oni Lee and firing colourful energy blasts at his clones. Whenever they managed to hit him, he would rapidly disintegrate into ash, only to appear again moments later. Sometimes, the teleporter popped up as two or three clones in quick succession, launching a furious attack on the beleaguered broom-riders.
Hebert stood and stared at the violent spectacle, steadying herself against a wall. Clouds of bugs roiled in the air, swarming around Lee when he appeared, but seemingly failing to do much to slow him down.
"This critter is relentless!" Jephro cursed, firing yellow sparks from his stick at the teleporter. "We must have disturbed her nest, or something!"
"Great! The Ministry said they wanted nesting mother dragons for the Tournament!" Cyril swerved and swooped, trying to shake off the clones that popped into existence, sometimes literally on top of him. "If we could distract it for a couple of seconds, I could set up a temporary ward! Try another Predator-Repelling Charm!"
Hebert turned her head from side to side, scanning the rooftop. "Distraction, distraction... If bugs didn't work, what will?"
She grew still, looking in the direction of Jephro's broom, laying near Lung's cage.
Within the cage, the still-huge monstrous parahuman stirred again.
The tall girl took a deep breath. Then, she charged across the rooftop, heading for the broom.
Oni Lee lobbed another grenade at the broom-riders.
Dodging and side-stepping the stray energy blasts from above that occasionally rained down on the roof around her, Hebert seemed to be using her swarm of insects to detect incoming attacks that might hit her. When the broom-riders deflected Lee's grenade with another wave of Jephro's stick, it clattered down on the roof, landing close to Hebert. It had barely touched down once, beginning to roll and bounce sideways, when she kicked out with one leg as she ran past.
Her kick was far from perfect, but it got the grenade skipping away from her, aided by a thick cloud of bugs, pushing it towards the edge of the roof.
The grenade tumbled over the low wall by the end of the roof, vanishing over the edge. Then, it exploded.
Tremors jolted the whole roof, knocking Hebert over. The blast tore out a sizeable chunk of the roof.
Hebert shook her head, struggled up on her hands and knees, and crawled towards the broom.
Lung let out a low rumble. One inhuman eye cracked open.
A string of muttered swear words, coming from Hebert, could barely be heard over the din of the ongoing combat. The tall girl knelt beside the broom, poking and shaking it. "Maybe it's Tinker-tech? I wish I'd read more sci-fi novels... Why doesn't it have a 'Start' button - or any buttons?"
Slowly, with an air of gravity and ponderous mass, Lung's fist clenched, and opened. His claws ground against the floor of the cage with a screech of much-abused metal; one claw scraped across an inch of roof just outside the cage, leaving a deep gouge.
"It worked just fine for the weirdo in the pointy hat, and it doesn't look damaged..." Hebert murmured, turning the broom over in her hands. "Could it be some sort of whatchamacallit..." She raised her head. "...A biometric lock?"
Several beetles scuttled across the roof, nudging and rolling a piece of debris in front of them. Upon closer inspection, the beetles' prize was slim and cigar-shaped, pinkish in color. It might have been a cocktail sausage, for a given value of "sausage".
Hebert hesitated with her hand outstretched, shoulders jittering with a small shudder. Then, she scooped up the not-quite-pink cylinder, and pressed it against the broom.
"C'mon, c'mon..." She poked and prodded, tapped and swiped. "Is there, I dunno, a key phrase? Hocus pocus? Abracadabra? Open, sesame? On-switch, sesame?"
Lung had half-risen on one elbow, growling as he tried to jam his large paw through the opening between the bars of the cage. Impressively, the metal didn't bend, or yield in the slightest. His rumbling noise of anger intensified, flames licking up around the sides of the cage.
Hebert held up the two items in her hands, studying them closely. "...Maybe the broom can tell that this doesn't have a pulse, or whatever? Maybe I need to trick the broom into thinking that its rider is alive... Which he is, just, y'know... not this bit of him..."
Lung glanced over his shoulder. His tail rose up, whipping in the air. It was long, and sinuous, and a fair bit less massive than his fists.
A squadron of bees and wasps flew down and landed on Hebert's arm, surrounding the pinkish sausage she held cupped in her hand. "If I can just get the nerve ending synapse thingies firing..."
Lung's tail lashed out, quick as a viper.
Hebert began to roll aside, clearly getting a belated warning from her swarm when the tail bulldozed past her bugs. She jumped too late. Lung's tail smacked against her side, causing a cracking noise of what was almost certainly a cracked rib, and a yelp of pain from the girl.
Her scream took on an added overtone of fear when she was hurled across the rooftop by the force of the blow. She rolled towards the broken section of roof, where Oni Lee's grenade had blasted away the low wall. Broom still clutched in one hand, Hebert went over the side of the roof, and plummeted towards the pavement.
A cluster of fast-flying insects followed in her wake, carrying a cargo of one pinkish cylinder, that had multiple wasps and bees attached, jabbing it with their stingers. The sausage-esque trinket seemed to twitch and emit small glowing sparks, as the venom pumped into its flesh.
The aerial battle raged on, neither broom-riders nor teleporters showing any sign of having noticed what just happened below them.
A long-haired figure, disguised behind an ominous insectoid mask, rose unsteadily into the air, floating up past the edge of the rooftop on a shaky broom. "If anyone quotes 'Something wicked this way comes' at me," she muttered to herself, voice trembling. "I am going to clog their nose with centipedes."
WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI. WaTWFTSI.
Cynical people might suspect that I would have been sorely tempted to give this story a slightly different title (i.e. "When Triwizard Fails, Try Maggots Instead"), for the sole purpose of having an excuse to abbreviate it WTF, TMI.
Those people would be right.